The creepy crawly solution to the world's growing hunger problem: Eat more bugs!

Why society needs to get over its insect-phobia and embrace the most abundant form of protein we've got

By Lindsay Abrams

Published February 8, 2014 9:00PM (EST)

     (<a href=''>Eric Isselee</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Eric Isselee via Shutterstock)

The nice word for it is entomophagy. What it actually is: eating bugs. And Daniella Martin has made a career out of it.

The title of Martin's first book, "Edible," makes her case in a nutshell: These are tiny, walking sources of animal protein that most modern humans -- lacking an appetite for things with more than four legs -- have overlooked. Have we been missing out? Taste aside, Martin says (and she argues that they can be quite tasty), eating bugs has the potential to the address global issues of hunger, along with inefficiencies in our current, unsustainable food industry.

Martin spoke with Salon about her entomophagous experiences, the cultural hang-ups that are keeping moth tacos from taking off and why eating bugs may make more sense than giving up meat entirely. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

First of all, can we acknowledge that people might think this is too gross to even consider?

Well, I was hoping that this book could help break that barrier down. I think that Western society is actually kind of brainwashed when it comes to insects. We tend to think of them as being gross, dirty, dangerous, when in fact — with over a million known insect species — it’s only a very few that have had any real interaction with humans.

So what do you think is the likelihood of convincing people otherwise?

I think it’s possible. I think sushi is a really good model. You know, 30 years ago eating sushi was considered pretty edgy. As recently as the 1980s, John Bender, in the movie “The Breakfast Club,” was freaking out that one of his classmates had brought sushi for lunch and that she was actually going to be putting raw fish in her mouth. [The quote: “You won’t accept a guy’s tongue in your mouth, and you’re going to eat that?"] And now sushi is considered an absolute delicacy. It’s common, and not even something people go out for just for something unusual -- it’s many people’s favorite food. There are sushi restaurants in the middle of Kansas, which is nowhere near the ocean. So I definitely think there is a future for entomophagy with the right education and the right kind of marketing and the right PR.

You’ve talked to people who market bugs. What are some of their strategies for doing that?

That’s a great question. I know that Don Bugito, which is the insect food pop-up (located in San Francisco) that serves the wax moth, were doing a pop-up in a lot of bars for awhile and at food truck type places — in places that people are in a bit of an experimental mood, where they are up for trying new things. I think that’s an interesting angle on it. You have Chapul, which is based in Utah -- they do an insect powder protein bar. That’s an awesome angle as well for anyone who’s interested in getting nutrition through a meal replacement bar but doesn’t want to go the sugary route that other bars go. I think the fitness community and the foodie community are going to be two ins.

You make the case for eating bugs, because it allows you to have it both ways: the animal protein without eating what we traditionally think of as meat. Can you explain more about why you don’t buy into vegetarianism or veganism as a solution to problems with the meat industry?

I don’t want to tick anybody off, but just speaking in terms of veganism, there isn’t really any history when it comes to vegan societies. There basically is no such thing. Eating animal protein has been a part of human evolution. And in many ways that animal protein came in the form of insects, which is something that most people don’t know. People talk about the Paleo diet, and in fact, the real Paleo diet included bugs. In between animal kills, what were people subsisting on? Insects. And who was collecting them? Women.

My problem with vegetarianism is I don’t actually think it solves the problem. When you think about what the world’s biggest vegetarian society is, we think of India. But India is actually also the home of most of the world’s cattle and, thus, most of the world’s methane — from cattle — footprint. And they need all these cattle to produce the high level of dairy that they consume in place of meat. So I don’t think that model is particularly working in terms of the environment.

And then when you look at veganism, I think it’s a wonderful theory that doesn’t work in practice. I’ve read so many testimonials from people who tried veganism and either failed — even in this day and age where at places like Whole Foods you can get chia seeds, you can get soy milk, you can get hemp milk — and yet, vegan diets are still failing people, not only because of the inconvenience, but also because people are finding their health fails. So I think veganism is something that can work temporarily. I think it is something that can work for a few people, but not for the general population.

So I think what we need to do is look at where we are getting our animal protein, because I do think it is necessary and I do think we need to get more responsible about sourcing it. I think insects are a really great alternative.

Another reason people turn to veganism is concern over animal suffering, and “true” vegans will say insects shouldn’t suffer either. Do you see the ethical issues for bugs as being different than they are for cows or chickens?

I do, and here’s the reason why: First of all, it’s easy to raise insects in small spaces without affecting them negatively. For instance, there are many forms of larvae that you can raise literally packed in next to their brethren and they are perfectly fine with this. So It’s easy to raise them humanely but still efficiently — with an efficient use of space.

Number two, they have pretty short lifespans. Cows, pigs and even chickens can live for many years. Insects have relatively short life cycles, so I think there is less of an ethical dilemma there.

Thirdly, in terms of the slaughtering process, there are very humane ways to kill insects using temperature. When I kill insects, I do it in my freezer, and basically, since they are already cold-blooded, they just kind of go to sleep. It’s not the same as if you take a warm-blooded animal and freeze them to death. It’s not the same level of suffering.

And then finally, on the processing end, you don’t have to throw away as much of the animal as you would for something like cow or a chicken, where feathers and bones and hooves and beaks are being thrown away and not used for anything -- with an insect, you can eat the entire thing.

It brings you a lot closer to killing the animal

It really does! And it’s so funny because — you wouldn’t expect this, but as somebody who’s wanted to include insects in my diet, I’ve had to kill a lot of them myself. I’m not a hunter. I’m not a fisher -- I’ve never really killed animals before. And I’ve had to get used to that process and what it feels like. Ultimately it has resulted in my having a greater appreciation for the meat that I do eat, and I waste far less meat, because I realize that it really does come from a living, breathing animal.

You write in the book about a lot of issues that crop up with meat alternatives and efforts to be sustainable, be it so or farmed fish -- do we know anything about the potentially harmful effects that can come from eating bugs? Or is that something we just haven’t studied enough yet?

It’s not something that we have studied enough yet. The only potential drawbacks I can see are for people with allergies. So, for instance, people that are allergic to shellfish can’t eat insects because they are so closely biologically related. So that is a drawback. Other than that, I don’t know that any societies where insects are commonly consumed have reported any general ill-effects from consuming insects. So that is something that would have to be further studied.

I was asking around about this on Twitter, and someone wanted to know how many bugs you would have to eat to get the same amount of protein as one steak, say, or one chicken breast. Is that something you’re able to quantify?

This question comes up all the time, and I have to say I’m confused by it. Nobody asks how many more popcorn shrimp they’d have to eat to equal a lobster tail, right? Nobody thinks about that. Nobody thinks, “So how many Chicken McNuggets would you have to eat to equal a hamburger?” You know what I mean?

I think people are imagining needing to eat heaping plates of crickets in order to get enough protein.

Chicken actually has almost twice the protein of beef, but whatever type of meat or tofu you’re eating, you typically consume about the same volume. So, for example, if you're going to eat about a handful-sized portion of meat, you'd eat about the same volume of crickets. If we're talking numbers, it would be about 100 crickets. This might have a bit less protein than, say, a comparable amount of beef, but it would have far more calcium and iron. And that’s not necessarily very difficult, because you can sauté them and mix them in with a bunch of vegetables and you won’t necessarily notice that you’re eating more. They are very light. People consistently see that as being an issue, and I don’t see it.

So do you think this is something that can really address hunger issues? Is this the big obvious solution that is right in front of our faces? And if it is, why aren’t more people who are food-starved already eating bugs?

Well, traditionally, cultures that eat bugs get them via foraging. The idea of farming insects is just not part of the cultural perspective -- just like how you would rather go fishing for trout than raise them in your bathtub. But what is currently being studied, by quite a few different organizations, is how insects can be farmed efficiently in places where there is not enough water for crops and not enough space for other forms of livestock, because these insects can be fed on things that neither humans nor most livestock would eat, like weeds and compost.

So what’s interesting about edible insects as an alternative to current models for solving hunger is they bypass the distribution model. The idea is that if you can get an insect farming kit into a hungry community then they can be farming animal protein off of the waste of something like compost instead of waiting for a food-plentiful area like the U.S. to drop food off. The distribution model has been the traditional model for generations and it’s not working. There are all kinds of things that get in the way: geographic obstacles, political obstacles. The idea that people could be farming insects within their communities and that that practice could spread virally from within the hungry areas is kind of a new concept. And the reason that hasn’t gotten funding is because it’s just being considered too weird!

Are there places where this approach is happening, or is it still just a theory?

There is something that’s currently going on called the Flying Food Initiative, in Kenya. So this is something that they are currently researching. And again, it’s a bit of a sell even within communities that already eat insects. For instance, if you live in Uganda and you are used to eating a certain type of katydid, for a Western team to come in and teach you to farm crickets, that’s still a sell, because they’re not used to farming these insects. They are used to harvesting them from the wild, and they’re used to eating specific species. So apparently there has been a little bit of a conversion factor going on there. It’s been successful thus far, but it’s interesting. It is going to take some work. It is going to take some research. But I think that it has so much potential that why wouldn’t we explore that?

Can you talk a bit more about your own experience getting used to the idea of eating bugs?

So the first bug that I ever ate was in Oaxaca, and it was during an internship abroad for my degree in anthropology when I was studying in college. I went specifically because I wanted to see what aspects of Aztec and Maya life — particularly cuisine — had survived to the present day, and insects were definitely one of those things. The first time I tried insects, I actually didn’t like them and it was purely for academic reasons that I tried them out to begin with.

But then it was the idea of eating something that was so plentiful, and yet so widely overlooked that really… I’m a person that always roots for the underdog; I’m always interested in things that other people are overlooking and finding the value there. When I really became interested in this idea and sharing it with a larger audience of course I knew that I had to learn how to cook insects for myself.

The very first time I did this I ordered live wax-moth larvae from a farm in California. I put them in the freezer overnight and took them out and sautéed them because I didn’t know what else to do with them. I just remember the first time I put them in my mouth when I realized that they tasted like food. They didn’t taste like some crazy bug. They didn’t taste like weird sushi that I’ve tasted — I mean, I grew up in Tokyo; I’ve tasted some weird sushi — and there wasn’t anything exotic about their taste: they tasted kind of earthy, like a nutty mushroom. And it was at that moment that I realized that the only reason we are not eating these is because we are not eating them. Essentially, there is no real logical reason. It’s just cultural. It’s just these blinders that we have worn for generations that we’re going to have to work at taking off. I’m hoping that "Edible" can help in that process.

So, assuming we’ve convinced anybody, do you have suggestions for people who are ready to try it? Can you just go into your backyard and start picking up bugs, or is there a more formal way of going about it?

My book does give some instructions, some guidance, in terms of foraging and determining which species are safe versus those that are probably less good to eat. But I do kind of consider that as an advanced move. I don’t actually recommend that people go out into their backyard and gather insects. It’s nothing against the insects themselves, but because they might have come into contact with human toxins — chemicals, asbestos, fertilizer, pesticides. These are all things that humans produce that we don’t want to consume. So don’t eat the roaches in your kitchen.

I think if people want to give this a try a great thing to do is to order one of the food-grade insect items that are already on the market. You have Chapul in Utah, which is already selling insect powder protein bars. You have World Ento, which is selling organic dried mealworms. You have Hotlix, which makes scorpion lollipops. There’s a lot of ways you can try this to just kind of dip your toes in. If you are a little more of a foodie, you can actually order live insects from an insect farm, have them arrive on your doorstep in a cardboard box, and just put the cardboard box in your freezer overnight, and then they are as ready to use as shrimp you might have bought from the market.

Lindsay Abrams

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